by Lizwi Alpha Ntuli | 14 November 2018 |
The Adventist church in Africa is sometimes regarded in the West as the ideal and model of true conservative Adventism—and in some ways it is. Adventists in Africa tend to take the Bible as it reads. They believe Ellen White is a prophet of God. I have known many Adventists who strictly adopt a no-meat diet as prescribed by the Spirit of Prophecy, even to the detriment of their health. Indeed, I celebrate the devotion of many African Seventh-day Adventists to want to do the right thing no matter what.
In spite of the foregoing, there is a cultural influence which continues to pull the African church back: spiritualism.
Spiritualism still has influence in many parts of the church, from the members all the way up to high-ranking leaders. One woman whose husband had abandoned the family for another woman approached the local church prayer band with her problem. After the prayers, the head deaconess approached her secretly and told her that she knew of a traditional spiritualist healer who could help her. The inference was that this head deaconess, wife to an elder, had also benefited from this healer in her own marriage.
The Origin of Spiritualism in Africa
African traditional religion, the predominant religion before the advent of missionaries, is a family religion which has strong emphasis on respecting ancestors. Ancestors were believed to be the link or conduit to Musikavanhu (originator of humankind), and to have powers to protect the family against witchcraft.
Even in a continent now so thoroughly Christianized, these notions continue to have influence, often in quiet parallel with Christianity. Drought in Africa is sometimes said to be caused by departure from traditional practices. The ancestors might be angry because the family (or some family members) have abandoned the rituals, with bad fortune as a result. Even some Christian families may view non-participation by some members as weakening the family’s defense against witchcraft.
I wish I could say that lack of education is the main cause, but while it may contribute, some pastors with doctorates engage in these activities.
Prophets and Preachers
If you’re imagining a filthy, crazy-looking, painted-up, half-naked witch doctor in a mud hut, you’re not understanding spiritualism in the new Africa. Traditional healers, which we sometimes refer to as long-garment prophets, may be charismatic and polished. In addition to being spirit mediums, they create charms for people to use, charms whose appearance and ingredients depend on purpose and supplier. Traditional healers tend to use black and white cloths as armbands or waist bands to wrap their charms in and insert beads and objects. Modern prophets may use rubber armbands and anointing oil that is well-packaged and looks attractive and modern. You may also see used eggs, clay pots, prayer stones and holy water.
African Christianity itself has echoes of this in our Pentecostal preachers, with their own television stations and large followings. Like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Jimmy Swaggart, these preach the gospel of prosperity. The pentecostal worship and prosperity gospel appeals to some of the same impulses in the African culture that make the traditional healers popular: the desire to do some simple spiritual act that will insure one’s success in life. Many Adventists have been found in those meetings. There are even Seventh-day Adventist pastors who have toyed with preaching this sort of message, with some popularity.
Church and Charms
Church members who have charms obviously do not display them openly. Denial is common, and it is difficult to know who uses charms. In fact, when lessons on the state of the dead are conducted, no Adventist opposes the position. However, in practice, there are those who say God helps those who help themselves—meaning, if going to spiritualists saves lives, it is all right.
Church leaders do preach against these things. I have attended camp meetings where preachers made stirring appeals for members who still had charms to bring them forward for burning. Many did come forward. In fact, one music conductor who was well-known for his prowess at camp meetings came forward and confessed that he had used charms to draw the campers to come once he started singing to announce the commencement of a service at the camp!
Yet the impact of such powerful preaching at camp meetings is diluted by the duplicity of some church leaders who may still use charms themselves. One man informed me that in the 1970s, when the church was still confined to Manicaland, a president used juju during calls to the altar. He would inform his elders that at his signal during his sermon, elders were to go to a particular spot and fiddle with a set of stones, and as soon as they did that, many people would respond to the altar call!
Sometimes Adventists are put in a no-win situation. In rural settings “wizard sniffers” called tsikamutanda/gaurani, might be hired to cleanse an area if a chief or headman suspects evil witchcraft is rife. Adventists in those areas are known for boycotting such public ceremonies, and rightly so. In some cases, though, their boycotting is seen as way to escape scrutiny, the Adventists themselves suspected to be dangerous witches who hide behind the cloak of church. Long-garment prophets have a low opinion of Adventists, because they accuse the church of harboring wizards. Because the church doesn’t always go the extra mile to sniff out witches, some have accused pastors of protecting witchcraft in the church. An Adventist preacher may be suspected of encouraging hearers to throw away charms so that his own charms have effect on the members!
There was a time when areas surrounding mission schools were so influenced by Adventism that no other churches were found in the 50-kilometer radius from the missions. Indigenous spiritualist churches have again infiltrated those areas. It seems likely that people converted to Adventism did not discard charms given to them by their forebears. Three or four generations later, when families encounter infertility, mysterious deaths, lack of progress economically, unemployment and other misfortunes, these influences return. If the children meet indigenous prophets who can name their misfortunes and tell them who is causing them, some abandon the Adventist church for the long-garment churches.
Babies and Herbs
Of particular concern in African culture is the newborn child. It is believed that its fontanel—the soft spot on an infant’s skull—is vulnerable to attack by witches. If an infant gets sick, witchcraft is suspected. Treatment includes dipping a finger in salt and then rubbing it onto the roof of the infant’s mouth, while a string with a button is tied around the wrist. When my son got sick in 1995, my wife’s family performed that ritual. My son ultimately died. For protesting that my wife’s family had engaged in occult practices against church doctrine, I was disfellowshipped from church. One elder later told me in confidence that there was no way I could have won the case because at the time other church leaders were steeped in the same practices. The leaders’ children had undergone the same experience as my son and survived.
Our traditional healers also make use of herbs. Of course, some herbs are used as medicine both here and in the West. I have seen herbs used effectively to treat certain kinds of sores and even malaria. One must make a distinction between ritualistic herbs and therapeutic herbs: if you are told that the herbs have certain rituals attached, like using them in a dark room whilst naked, or that you must drink the concoction whilst facing a certain direction, then you know you are in dangerous territory.
Adventists who have a solid Biblical understanding of the occult do not justify their use of the traditional healers and their charms. Where these things are done, they are done in secret.
Occasionally though, traditional superstitions may sneak in even under cover of Scripture. For example, the fifth commandment about honoring parents is used to instill fear into children who want to break from a family religion. In an African family system, a parent, especially a mother, has power to curse or bless her offspring. If a child disrespects his mother, it is feared that the mother’s avenging spirit may wreak havoc should she die with a grudge. Some mothers whip their children into line by threatening them with curses, while quoting Exodus 20:12. Children may be afraid of going against the wishes of their mothers even if those wishes are against the clear counsel of scripture.
Rooting Out Spiritualism
It is my fear that if we do not act to root out spiritualism, the devil will use it to wreak havoc in the church in these last days. Could the devil use spiritualism to make it appear as if the church in Africa is more spiritual than the church in the West? If so, he would have succeeded in dividing the church. While fervor in the African church exists, such fervor must be laced with reason and scripture.
Rooting out such practices is possible if we take advantage of the power of Christ. At the end of it all, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, whether we live in Antarctica or in the Sahara. Culture affects our way of interpreting Scripture and it is only wise that we try, as far as our maturity can allow, to step away from ethnocentric practices which retard our commission.
Lizwi Alpha Ntuli was born in central Zimbabwe. He has worked in the aviation industry, as a colporteur, and is currently a court interpreter in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe.